30 September 2010

We regret to inform you that executions may be delayed

Bad news for American supporters of capital punishment. The pharmaceutical company Hospira reported it has suspended the production of Pentothal because it is unable to obtain enough of the drug's essential ingredients. Pentothal, or sodium thiopental, used as an anaesthetic in hospital operations, is one of the three drugs that make up the cocktail for lethal injections, Americans' favourite form of legal execution. Hospira is the sole producer of the drug.

Executions have already been postponed in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and Arizona and California are expecting delays. Oklahoma has enough sodium thiopental to kill one of the two inmates scheduled to die, but faces the awkward business of which one. Flip a coin, perhaps?

Some capital punishment supporters suspect that Hospira has an ulterior motive -- that it is attempting to avoid its products being used to kill people. Although the company insists the current shortage is due to a problem with supply, it has also stated, "The drug is not indicated for capital punishment, and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure," so maybe it is up to some altruistic mischief. Director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, Richard Dieter, observed, "There will be more of these sorts of problems so long as you try to use a medical method for executions."

All hope is not lost for the executioners, however. Texas, apparently, has ample supplies of Pentothal on hand.

Got a question about religion? Ask an atheist

A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life offered some intriguing results. The survey of 3,412 Americans indicated that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about religion. They were closely followed by Jews and Mormons and then more distantly by evangelical Christians. Out of 32 religious knowledge questions, atheists/agnostics answered, on average, 20.9 correctly, Jews 20.5, Mormons 20.3 and evangelicals 17.6. The survey average was 16.

While Mormons and evangelicals knew more about Christianity, Jews and atheists/agnostics knew more about other religions. Curiously, even though the United States is perhaps the most religious country in the West, many Americans know little about the major religions, including their own. For example, while two-thirds of Americans believe school teachers are not legally allowed to read from the Bible, the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic” qualities as long as it is part of a secular curriculum.

Part of the reason that atheists and Jews know more about religion is because they are better educated. (The survey indicated that education is the single best predictor of religious knowledge.) "However," the survey goes on to say, "even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits ... Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity."

If you want to check your own knowledge of religion, you can find the survey here. And how did this atheist blogger do on the test? I'm not saying. Suffice it to say I did better than the average atheist.

29 September 2010

Will our government do right by "Hoder"?

Blogging is an entertaining but, as an influence in world affairs, an overrated medium. It provides vast quantities of opinion but little hard news. For that we must still rely on conventional news sources, principally the always dependable daily press, in hard copy or on line. Blogging, it seems to me, is rather like a vast letters-to-the-editor page.

Nonetheless, it is taken very seriously indeed in some quarters. For instance, Iran. The Iranian authorities, in yet another display of bloody-mindedness toward those who don't appreciate their divine truths, have sentenced blogger Hossein Derakhshan to 19 years in prison. Derakhshan -- online name of "Hoder" -- is widely referred to as the "blogfather" of Iranian blogging for helping pro-democracy activists use the web in Farsi to promote their cause.

Derakhshan, a Canadian and Iranian dual citizen, was sentenced for co-operating with hostile countries, spreading propaganda against the establishment, promoting counter-revolutionary groups, insulting Islamic thought and religious figures and managing obscene websites. In other words, for being a pain in the ass to a bunch of self-righteous mullahs. Apparently the prosecutors in the case wanted the death penalty. No doubt if he was a female blogger they would have wanted him stoned to death.

The Canadian government now has the responsibility, both because Derakhshan is a Canadian and because we should defend freedom of speech, to work for his freedom and his return to Canada. They should be able to perform their duty here -- after all the man isn't a Khadr.

28 September 2010

Britain - a sensible new foreign policy?

The speech by Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to the UN General Assembly appeared to set out a new foreign policy for the U.K., a policy along much more civilized lines than that of the infamous Tony Blair and his New Labour government.

Clegg stated, for instance, that "The United Kingdom will also show leadership by example. As fierce advocates of the international rule of law, we will practice what we preach. No nation can insist on the law, and then act as though it is above it." This is of particular interest given Clegg's belief, vigorously stated in the British House of Commons, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. It should also mean that Britain will provide less encouragement to the United States for its gratuitous military adventurism.

He also promised that Britain would be more multilateral in its approach to international issues. Consistent with this, he suggested the UN Security Council add permanent seats for Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and Africa.

Clegg declared that terrorism and conflict are best dealt with by debate and persuasion, insisting that "Democracy cannot be created by diktat." The UN Human Rights Council, he suggested, should be strengthened to deal with "outrageous abuse" of human rights. A greater emphasis on peaceful means of expanding democracy and human rights throughout the world, particularly through the offices of the UN, will be welcome after New Labour's self-righteous militarism.

This new approach, suitable to a Liberal Democratic party and indicative of his party's influence in Britain's coalition government, is a pleasing change indeed.

25 September 2010

Ahmadinejad preaches conspiracy theory and gets a hearing

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gotten himself into the headlines again, something he's very good at. This time for supporting the popular conspiracy theory that 9/11 may have been orchestrated not by al-Qaeda but by the American administration.

I'm not much for conspiracy theories myself, so I think Ahmadinejad is just doing his usual piss-off-the-Israelis-and-the-Americans shtick. But then he's not preaching to me. He's preaching to the Middle East. And there his words will earn a friendlier reception.

He is quite wrong when he claims that most Americans, as well as most people in other parts of the world, agree that elements within the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11 in order to "reverse the declining American economy" and to justify US military operations in the Middle East to "save the Zionist regime." According to a 2008 world public opinion study carried out by the University of Maryland, only 15 per cent of the people in the 17 countries studied believed the U.S. government carried out the attacks.

The Middle East is another matter.  In Egypt, only 12 per cent thought the Americans were responsible, but 42 per cent believed Israel was. Only 16 per cent blamed al-Qaeda. In Jordan, 31 per cent blamed Israel with only 11 per cent blaming al-Qaeda. And in Turkey almost as many accused the U.S. (36 per cent) as accused al-Qaeda (39 per cent). Among the Palestinians, al-Qaeda was the most likely culprit (42 per cent), but the U.S. (27 per cent) and Israel (19 per cent) were high on the list. Ahmadinejad's rantings obviously get a hearing in this part of the world

President Obama Obama lashed out at Ahmadinejad's view, claiming it contrasts with that of the Iranian people. But judging by the above results, he might be wrong. This wouldn't be the first time the Americans have misjudged the attitudes of people in the Middle East. Just such a blunder helped lead them into the Iraq debacle.

23 September 2010

The good news is that Americans aren't spending

Many politicians and economists alike are decrying the fact that Americans have rediscovered thrift. After a decades-long binge of maxing out their credit cards, American consumers are deciding to put a little more in the bank, or under their mattresses, or wherever.

Americans' personal savings rate had dropped from around 10 per cent in the 1970s to zero by the time the recession hit, but has now been over five per cent for almost two years. Before the recession, Americans bought on average 16.6 million vehicles a year. The forecast for 2010 is 12 million, and passenger cars have largely replaced SUVs and pickup trucks. Of course, much of the reduced spending is due to unemployment; nonetheless there seems to be a mood of thrift in the country and it seems to be increasing. While promoters of endless growth complain that all this saving will not help lift the economy out of recession, those who believe there are limits to growth are encouraged. The Earth is finite after all.

Although most economists believe this is temporary and Americans will eventually return to their free-spending ways, it is possible, remotely perhaps but possible nonetheless, that Americans, and the rest of us, will come to our senses before we consume ourselves into environmental collapse.

Well ... we can always dream.

22 September 2010

Tea Partyers - the useful idiots of capitalism

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, one frequently heard the expression "useful idiots." The term described people in the West who sympathized with Soviet communism naively believing it to be a force for good. The Soviet Union cynically used them even as it held them in contempt.

This term now applies perfectly to the Tea Partyers. They ardently support the neo-liberal dogma of unfettered markets and small government, assuming naively that power removed from government devolves to the people. Unfortunately, it doesn't. It is absorbed by those best positioned to absorb it, and that is usually the rich, particularly the corporate sector.

We have just experienced a clear and powerful example of exactly that. I refer of course to the financial and economic collapse triggered by Wall Street greed. U.S. governments stripped themselves of power in the financial sector by increasingly deregulating the industry. Did this power devolve equitably to the American people? Hardly. It was assumed by bankers who used it to fabulously enrich themselves at the expense of the public. Not only did ordinary Americans not gain possession of the power government gave away, they were exploited by those who did get it. And then they were plunged into the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. So much for the virtues of small government.

The chief beneficiaries of reduced government handsomely fund those who do the dirty work. A recent article in The New Yorker describes how the immensely rich Koch brothers, Charles and David, have donated over a hundred million dollars to a vast network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups dedicated to reducing the size of government. The Koches are the richest men in the United States after Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Heavily invested in energy and chemicals, they have even outspent ExxonMobil in funding organizations fighting climate change legislation. (Koch Industries is one of the top ten air polluters in the U.S.) A former Koch adviser bluntly described their approach, “They’re smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.”

While David Koch insists, “I’ve never been to a Tea Party event. No one representing the Tea Party has ever even approached me,” the Americans for Prosperity Foundation -- an organization he started -- has worked closely with the Tea Party from the beginning. It helps educate Tea Party activists on policy details, offers them “next-step training” after their rallies, and provides them with lists of elected officials to target.

Tea Partyers fit every criteria of the definition of useful idiots. They believe the neo-liberal philosophy of unfettered markets and small government is a force for good when it is, for ordinary citizens, a recipe for economic disaster. Those who do benefit cynically use people like the Partyers to enhance their own power and greed.

Like the useful idiots of communism, the Tea Partyers are well-intentioned. They genuinely feel they have found the holy grail of political and economic salvation. But, also like the useful idiots of communism, they unwittingly serve powerful masters much more sophisticated and much more devious than they.

20 September 2010

Want to build a church in Indonesia? Good luck!

We have heard a great deal about mosque-building recently. Locals in American towns such as Murfreesboro,Tennessee, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Temecula, California, and of course, New York, are objecting to the building of mosques in their communities. Not to be outdone by Christian bigots, Muslims in Indonesia are protesting the building of a church in a suburb of Jakarta.

Government regulations require that anyone intending to build a house of worship in Indonesia obtain permission from the local community. In a country overwhelmingly Muslim, that can create a major challenge for Christians. Nonetheless, this congregation insists they had enough signatures until hard-line Muslims convinced some of those who had signed to change their minds.

The moderate majority in Indonesia supports the rights of Christians to build churches and is concerned about the rise of "angry Islam." Moderates in the United States similarly support the right of all faiths to worship freely. The reputations for religious tolerance in both countries are now under siege from the "true believers." The trouble with religion is that too many people take it too seriously.

18 September 2010

Murder, infanticide and the psychology of crime

A recent news item about a teenager suffering from postpartum depression who admitted to smothering two of her babies caught my eye. She had been accused of first degree murder, but her trial judge reduced the charge to the lesser offence of infanticide and sentenced her to one day in jail, three years probation and a 20-year peace bond. Crown prosecutors intend to argue in an appeal that L.G. should be convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

According to University of B.C. law professor Isabel Grant, "What the Crown is saying is that if a woman intended to kill her child, murder is the only option." She claims that prosecutors across the country are taking a hard line, arguing that "the circumstances that led to the crime of infanticide don't exist any more."

Perhaps they don't, but postpartum depression certainly does. L.G.'s lawyer, Timothy Breen, states that Parliament includes infanticide in the law because it presumes that "a mother would not intentionally kill her child unless she were suffering from a disturbed mind." That L.G. was suffering from a disturbed mind is to be expected. Her parents were emotionally unstable alcoholics who separated when she was a child. Her mother ultimately committed suicide. According to an article in Psychology Today, "In almost every case of significant adult depression, some form of abuse was experienced in childhood, either physical, sexual, emotional or, often, a combination."

If L.G. committed her crimes because of such a background, then punishing her is to some extent punishing her for being a victim. And this I suggest is what we commonly do. Psychopaths, for instance, who make the worst of criminals, are commonly the product of abusive infancies and childhoods. According to Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman of the Center For Family Development in New York, "Abused and neglected children have poorly integrated cerebral hemispheres. This poor integration of hemispheres and underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex is the basis for such symptoms as difficulty regulating emotion, lack of cause-effect thinking, inability to accurately recognize emotions in others, inability of the child to articulate the child’s own emotions, an incoherent sense of self and autobiographical history, and a lack of conscience." Psychopaths are victims who in turn create victims.

Is it justice, then, to punish victims for being victims? Obviously if they are a danger to others, they must be constrained, but should they be constrained by a criminal justice system or by a mental health system? In the case of L.G., confining her in prison for life, as the Crown wants to do, seems medieval, yet she can't be allowed to go on killing babies. The answer would seem to lie in an approach that monitors her carefully and provides her with the therapy and training to help her be a good parent.

Not all that long ago, we were at a loss as to what to do with the mentally ill, so we locked them up in "madhouses" where they were often cruelly misused. We have greatly progressed since then. Yet we still have a long way to go in dealing appropriately with mental illness that manifests itself in what we term criminal behaviour. It requires a combination of justice, compassion and subtlety that currently eludes us.

16 September 2010

"During war there are no civilians"

"During war there are no civilians." The words of an Israeli Defence Forces training unit leader testifying at the Rachel Corrie trials being held in Haifa.

Rachel Corrie was killed by a bulldozer while she and other members of the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement were attempting to prevent demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military on March 16, 2003 in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Her parents are suing the Israeli government, claiming it was an intentional act, a view denied by the Israelis.

This open admission of an indiscriminate policy towards civilians, Palestinian or foreign, shocked many in the courtroom, but it is hardly surprising after Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2009 when Israel killed 1,400 Gazans, including 400 children. It does, however, prompt a question about terrorism. If it truly is Israel's policy that "during war there are no civilians," and one would have to assume it is if an Israeli military spokesman testified to it in a court of law, then how can Israel claim that terrorist attacks on its civilians are illegitimate?

If Hamas, or any other group considers itself to be at war with Israel, then purposely killing civilians, i.e. terrorism, would seem to be a legitimate strategy. Whether or not the group is pursuing a legitimate cause is of course another matter, but considering the situation of the Palestinians -- both their oppression by Israel and their lack of military means to do much about it -- their cause would seem to be very legitimate indeed.

When we contemplate a terrorist attack by Palestinians against their oppressor, we should therefore keep in mind they are using a weapon that Israel itself has apparently legitimized.

15 September 2010

A new look

Google has come up with a nifty new template designer and I felt obliged to give it a go. The result, for better or worse, is the new look you see before you. Note the tabs.

Unfortunately, you will be stuck with the same old writing style, but at least it will, I hope, have a prettier face. I hope you will find the transformation tolerable and continue to find something of interest in these pages.

If only the Pentagon would pulp my books

Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer of the U..S. Army Reserve is one lucky author. The colonel writes his first book and before it even hits the shelves, one customer wants to buy out the entire first printing of 10,000 copies. The customer is the United States Defence Department and it doesn't want to read the book, it wants to pulp every last copy.

In the book, Operation Dark Heart, Shaffer, a former intelligence officer, describes his participation in the "dark side" of the American military that operates outside the usual constraints. He led a group that specialized in "black ops" inside Pakistan. The army cleared the book, but when the intelligence services and defence department officials saw it they went into panic mode, allegedly identifying hundreds of passages of classified material.

The publisher, St Martin's Press, said it has offered to sell the first print run to the Pentagon. Meanwhile the publicity has sent the book soaring on the bestseller lists and it hasn't even been released yet.

It isn't fair. I've written three books and the Pentagon has never done anything for me. But then, if the price is engaging in "black ops" inside Pakistan, whatever that entails, I believe I'll pass.

Iran and the military-industrial complex

Once again the United States is fueling the fires of war in the Middle East. It has announced the sale of up to an incredible $60-billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. And these are offensive, not defensive, weapons. Sixty billion in arms to an oppressive dictatorship is irresponsible beyond measure. And equally hypocritical. While it excoriates the Taliban for their treatment of women, the U.S. arms the world's most misogynistic dictatorship to the teeth.

The excuse, of course, is Iran, a nation which in all its modern history has never invaded another country, unlike the United States which invades other countries routinely. And unlike Israel, the country the U.S. is ostensibly protecting, which invades its neighbours routinely. Israel, needless to say, supports the sale.

And then there's another possible reason for the deal. The products to be purchased are aircraft: fighter planes, attack helicopters, etc. This will be a bonanza for U.S. defence contractors. Boeing alone is expected to involve 77,000 jobs in 44 states in supplying the aircraft. Could this, the biggest U.S. arms sale ever, be just another stimulus program? Yet more weaponry may be just what the Middle East doesn't need, but it will provide a welcome boost to the American economy. The military-industrial complex wins another one.

14 September 2010

Saving billions with a pharmacare plan

"Universal pharmacare touted as way to save billions," said a front-page headline in the Globe and Mail yesterday. "Universal pharmacare could save billions: study," confirmed the CBC. The headlines refer to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report which claims a national pharmacare plan could save Canadians almost $11-billion a year in drug costs.

The savings would come principally from adoption of a national drug-purchasing policy that combined rigorous drug assessment and price negotiations with pharmaceutical companies. New Zealand, where both per capita spending on drugs and growth in drug costs are less than half what they are in Canada, was offered as a model. Further savings would come from lower administration costs and ending tax subsidies to private plans.

The report states that our policy of setting drug prices high to encourage research and development in Canada is a failure. It results in us spending three dollars more on drugs for each dollar we generate in R&D spending.

As for the burden national pharmacare would place on public finances, the report points out that drug costs have been increasing twice as fast in private plans as in public plans. As the author of the study, Marc-Andre Gagnon of Carleton University, pointed out, "Canadians cannot afford not to have universal pharmacare."

Professor Gagnon also emphasized that a national plan would be much more equitable across the country and across social groups.

There should be no surprise here. We know from Medicare and public auto insurance that a public, single-payer system is the most efficient approach when comprehensive insurance is required. When provincial health ministers meet this week in St. John's, they should keep this fundamental fact uppermost in their minds.

10 September 2010

We are in Afghanistan why?

The highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies recently released its 2010 Annual Review of World Affairs. On the subject of Afghanistan it states, "Many worry that the large presence of foreign troops is what sustains and fuels the Taliban fighters." That sending thousands of troops to occupy a country might "fuel and sustain" a militant opposition is just common sense; nonetheless, it is refreshing to hear it from an institution like The Institute for Strategic Studies.

And the occupation goes well beyond provoking retaliatory violence in Afghanistan. It provokes violence from Muslim extremists everywhere, including home-grown terrorists in Canada. According to the RCMP, the latest group arrested was fueled and sustained by opposition to our military mission in Afghanistan, just as the infamous Toronto-18 gang was.

As for our stated objective of making Afghanistan a terrorist-free state, the Institute has this to say, "It is not clear why it should be axiomatically obvious that an Afghanistan freed of an international combat presence in the south would be an automatic magnet for al-Qaeda’s concentrated reconstruction. Al-Qaeda leadership, such as it is, may be quite content to stay where it is, while Taliban leaders who remained in Afghanistan might think twice of the advantages to them of inviting al-Qaeda back given the experience of the last decade." In other words, there is no good reason to think al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan if the Taliban formed the government, but good reason to believe the Taliban wouldn't want them back.

It was always nonsensical to think we would defeat Islamic terrorism by invading Islamic countries. Simple logic tells you it's more likely to do the opposite. And it seems it has. 

09 September 2010

What makes for a good university - not high tuition fees apparently

A recently released ranking of the world's universities by QS University Rankings announced that Cambridge University had overtaken Harvard as the world's top university. The QS rankings are based on quality of academic research, graduate employment rates, student-to-faculty ratios and international make-up of the student body and faculty.

As interesting as the comparison of the merits of the two institutions is a comparison of their fees. Tuition fees at Cambridge are the same as for all undergraduates at European Union universities: $4,126 for all courses. By comparison, the fees at Harvard are $34,918. In other words, a Cambridge student attends a better university than Harvard at a little over a tenth the cost.

What does this mean to Canadians? Well, if nothing else it suggests that higher fees don't result in better institutions, a rather important point in the fee debate.

04 September 2010

Development lunacy in Russia

If you sometimes shake your head in dismay at the destruction of heritage for new development in this country, consider what's happening in Russia. Russian authorities plan to auction off the gardens of Pavlovsk Station to property developers. Pavlovsk Station, located near Saint Petersburg, is one of the largest, oldest and most important seed banks in the world, housing 12,000 varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other varieties of plants, many not found anywhere else in the world. Pavlovsk attracts scientists from around the globe seeking rare genetic material. Unlike frozen seed banks, living samples grow in its fields.

The timing of the sell-off, or sell-out, is interesting - a time when food supplies throughout the world are increasingly threatened by climate change and Russia has seen the worst drought in its history destroy much of its wheat harvest. Pavlovsk is a global, not just a Russian, treasure and its loss would be a blow to the world's scientific and agricultural communities, and result in a weakening of world food security.

The history of the seed bank and gardens is inspiring. It was founded by the brilliant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov in 1926, pioneer of the modern seed bank. During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, its scientists starved to death rather than eat the seeds that could have sustained them. Vavilov himself died of malnutrition in prison in 1943, having criticized Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's favourite agronomist. What a tragedy if their sacrifice were to be in vain, trashed by the greed and ignorance of the modern Russian state.

All is not yet lost, however. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an inquiry into the issue. A letter to the Russian ambassador might be timely. He can be found at:

Ambassador Georgiy Enverovich Mamedov
The Embassy of the Russian Federation
285 Charlotte Street
Ottawa ON  K1N 8L5

03 September 2010

The terrorist threat - we should not be surprised

When the 9/11 bombers did their dirty work, it was highly politically incorrect to suggest American foreign policy had contributed to the atrocity. Now that the RCMP and CSIS are busily rooting out some home-grown terrorists in our fair land, we may hear similar sentiments about our foreign policy. But let's face it, we are part and parcel of Western behaviour, including that of the American empire, and the West has given the Islamic world much cause for hostility. Some examples:

• We North Americans continue to unilaterally support Israel as it persists in its oppression of the Palestinians and the theft of their land.
• The West generously supports dictators who oppress their Arab populations, notably the Sauds of Arabia and Mubarek of Egypt. Egypt continues to receive more foreign aid from the United States than any other country except Israel and Iraq.
• The Americans and their allies claim to support democracy in the Middle East, yet when it arises they crush it, such as in Iran in the 1950s and in Palestine more recently.
• The West, particularly the U.S., persists in inflicting wars on Islam that kill large numbers of Muslims. At least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed because of the American invasion, and that only counts those killed directly, not for instance the children who have died from malnourishment and lack of medical care.

Any one of these would be cause for profound anger. Add them together and we can only wonder why there isn't a great deal more Islamic terror directed at the West.

But does all this justify killing innocents? I certainly don't think so, but then I'm not much for killing under any circumstances which puts me somewhat at odds with Western foreign policy. When the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, it used that to justify waging war on two countries. Tens of thousands of innocents have died as a result and millions turned into refugees. This makes it hard to demand of Muslims they not retaliate against the offences listed above because innocents may get hurt.

As Haroon Siddiqui wrote in a recent column in the Toronto Star, "The solution [to terrorism] is not to panic or hector the Muslim community to rein in their own - they would if they could - but rather to stop being in denial that there is no connection between the wars we wage and the terrorist mayhem that they trigger, there and here."

02 September 2010

The NDP split - democracy as it should be

Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals, joined enthusiastically by the media, are all over Jack Layton these days because the NDP caucus is split on the future of the gun registry and some members may not vote with their colleagues. He is being told - in parliamentary jargon - to "whip" his caucus, an apt term indeed. If this tells us anything, it tells us why so many people are turned off by politics.

The NDP MPs who oppose the registry are apparently acting in accordance with the wishes of their constituents
(assuming they are listening to their women constituents as well as the men). So, here we have representatives who want to do not only what they were elected to do but quite probably what their consciences tell them to do, and their party leader is being told to punish them unless they betray both constituents and consciences.
What kind of people would accept this? If refusing to be "whipped" violated their party's core philosophy or a major policy, that would be one thing, but in this case it doesn't. In this case, as in most, they must be whipped to make the party leader look strong, to make him look like a big man who can bend others to his will, even if it offends their conscience. Only men or women without pride or self-respect would put up with that kind of treatment. And politicians, apparently, are expected to fall into that category - poodles, to be whipped into obedience. Self-respecting citizens can only look on with dismay.

But quite aside from revealing the shabby nature of politics and politicians, this kind of group-think is bad democracy. Caucus solidarity reduces most MPs to the status of cheerleaders when they enter the legislature. Our representatives deserve the right to state their views openly and freely, to vote on them just as openly and freely, and we deserve the right to measure their performance as our, not their parties’, representatives. Free votes make for a Parliament that more accurately reflects the wishes of the people, i.e. a more democratic Parliament. They can help parties work together and thus make government, particularly minority government, more effective. Caucus solidarity tends to do the opposite. As constitutional scholar C.E.S. Franks of Queen's University put it, “parties are interested in confrontation and drama, not in parliament as a legislature, or the back benches as an influence on government.”

I sympathize with Michael Ignatieff and his need to whip (how suitable that word seems) his caucus. He needs all the morale-boosters he can get. And if his MPs' integrity has to be sacrificed in the process ... well, that's politics. Frankly, I don't think Jack Layton is as desperate. I hope he will opt to respect his MPs - and the democratic process - and leave them free to vote their conscience.

01 September 2010

White slavery or the Underground Railroad?

A comment in a Globe and Mail editorial got me thinking not simply about the Tamil boat people but about human smuggling generally. The editor roundly condemned human smuggling, referring to it is as "a form of modern-day slavery." I wondered just what kind of human smuggling he was thinking about. Smuggling women to coerce them into prostitution, certainly. That isn't called "white slavery" for nothing. But how can smuggling a refugee from conditions of oppression and persecution into a free country be considered "a form of modern-day slavery"? It is rather more the opposite: a form of modern-day liberation.

Would the Globe editor, if he were writing in the 19th century, have been so censorious of the Underground Railroad. The Railroad brought at least 30,000 blacks to Canada from the American South. The Tamil "invasion" is a trivial matter by comparison. The Railroad operated in strict violation of the fugitive slave laws of the time, yet most people today think of it as a good, indeed noble, endeavour.

The Tamils are not, like the blacks riding the Railroad, escaping slavery, of course, but they may be escaping intolerable conditions nonetheless. And for that matter, what if they are simply looking for a better life, what if they are economic refugees? How does that have anything to do with "a form of modern-day slavery"? They may incur a debt - about $50,000 apparently - but many university students graduate with greater debts than that. Starting a new life isn't always cheap. And they may be jumping a queue, but considering the queue is imposed on them, there wouldn't seem to be much reason they should accept it.

The Globe editorial concludes by insisting countries must work together "to protect impoverished migrants from those who prey on their desperation." Yet the Globe strongly supports the kind of globalization that allows corporations to prey upon impoverished and often desperate workers in countries such as China and Mexico. We might wonder who is the greater predator, the capitalist who exploits cheap labour in the Third World or the smuggler who helps the exploited move to the First World.